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Archived: Constitutional Liberties Legal Cases

Since its creation in 1977, Mountain States Legal Foundation has been a national leader in seeking to ensure the liberties and freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. For example, before the U.S. Supreme Court and in various federal appellate and trial courts throughout the country, MSLF has set valuable legal precedent to achieve the goal of our Founding Fathers--a colorblind Constitution. MSLF victories before the U.S. Supreme Court in Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education, 476 U.S. 267 (1986) and Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 115 S.Ct. 2097 (1995), have changed race-based decision making by the federal government forever! MSLF continues its fight to ensure that the Constitution is interpreted as intended by its framers.

Vermillion v. Mora County, New Mexico

Legal Question:

Whether a county can ban oil and gas drilling in violation of state law and contrary to the guarantees set forth in the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions?

Plaintiffs:

Mary L. Vermillion; Jay Land Ltd. Co.; Yates Ranch Property LLC; and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico

Defendants:

Mora County, New Mexico; Mora County Board of County Commissioners; Paula A. Garcia, Mora County Commissioner, District 1; John P. Olivas, Chairman and Mora County Commissioner, District 2; Alfonso J. Griego, Vice-Chairman and Mora County Commissioner, District 3

Court:

U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico

 None.

New Mexico has been a major producer of oil and natural gas since hydrocarbons were discovered in the State in the 1920s; they are a lynchpin of the State’s economy and are essential for its continued fiscal health.  In 2012, New Mexico derived more than 27 percent of its general fund revenues from taxes and royalties on oil, natural gas, and carbon dioxide production, which, through the years, have contributed over 90 percent of the principal in the Severance Tax and Land Grant Permanent Funds, the earnings on which are used to fund the common schools, specific education or charities and institutions, and other state governmental operations.  Other petroleum tax receipts go directly into the State’s general budget.  More than 88,000 New Mexican citizens are employed directly by the oil and gas industry.  

In 1978, New Mexico passed the New Mexico Oil and Gas Act, which created the Oil Conservation Commission and Oil Conservation Division that are vested with complete “jurisdiction, authority and control” regarding the development of oil or gas.  The Division regulates oil and natural gas activity within the State so as to protect, among other things, fresh water, public health, safety and the environment and issues rules for “safety procedures for drilling and production of oil and gas wells.”  

On April 29, 2013, asserting a “local bill of rights,” despite the preeminence of State law as to oil and gas, Mora County passed the “Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance,” which bars the lawful development of oil and natural gas, prohibits hydraulic fracturing within Mora County, and restricts the rights of corporate entities as protected by the First and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

On November 11, 2013, Mary Vermillion, Jay Land Ltd. Co., Yates Ranch Property LLP, and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) filed a complaint in New Mexico federal district court alleging that the Ordinance violates the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and that the Ordinance is preempted by New Mexico law governing oil and gas extraction.  On December 3, 2013, Mora County filed an answer denying the allegations and further claiming that the County has an “inalienable right” to local self-government and is therefore, “not subject to preemption by state or federal law, or to nullification by corporate rights.”  On January 10, 2014, SWEPI LP (formerly Shell Western E&P Inc.) filed a similar complaint against Mora County.

On January 22, 2014, the court issued an initial scheduling order.  On March 4, 2014, a joint status report was filed along with a provisional discovery plan.  On March 18, 2014, the parties exchanged initial disclosures.  On March 20, 2014, the court issued a scheduling order.  On November 3, 2014, despite the court’s scheduling order, Mora County filed a motion to dismiss.  On November 26, 2014, the landowners and IPANM filed their opposition.  On December 19, 2014, Mora County filed a reply brief.

Meanwhile, on November 13, 2014, the landowners and IPANM filed a motion for summary judgment.  On December 15, 2014, Mora County filed a motion for summary judgment and a separate opposition to that of the landowners and IPANM.  On January 15, 2015, the landowners and IPANM filed their response and reply.  On January 19, 2015, in the SWEPI LP challenge to the Mora County Ordinance before a different judge, the district court invalidated the Ordinance in its entirety as preempted by the U.S. Constitution.  On February 15, 2015, Mora County filed its reply in support of a motion for summary judgment.  On March 27, 2015, Mora County voted unanimously to repeal the Ordinance.  On April 14, 2015, the parties filed a joint stipulation of dismissal and on April 14, 2015, the court entered an order dismissing the case without prejudice, each part to bear its own costs and fees.

  • Mora County Repeals Unconstitutional Ordinance; Lawsuit Dismissed

    Apr 14, 2015
    A New Mexico woman, two New Mexico landowners, and a New Mexico trade association today welcomed the repeal by Mora County of its 2013 ordinance that violated their constitutional rights by barring energy development and an order by a New Mexico federal district court dismissing their lawsuit.
  • New Mexicans Urge Federal Court to Reject Mora County’s Arguments

    Jan 15, 2015
    A New Mexico woman, two New Mexico landowners, and a New Mexico trade association today urged a New Mexico federal district court to reject arguments made by Mora County and its officials as to a 2013 civil rights lawsuit charging that a county ordinance violated their constitutional rights by barring energy development.
  • New Mexicans Urge Federal Court to Reject Mora County Motion

    Nov 26, 2014
    A New Mexico woman, two New Mexico landowners, and a New Mexico trade association today urged a New Mexico federal district court to dismiss a motion filed by Mora County and its officials regarding a 2013 civil rights lawsuit charging that a county ordinance violated their constitutional rights by barring energy development. Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) for Mary L. Vermillion, JAY Land Ltd. Co., Yates Ranch Property LLC, and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) charge Mora County’s ordinance violates their rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and corresponding rights under New Mexico’s Constitution.
  • New Mexicans Urge Judgment Against Mora County’s Ban on Energy

    Nov 13, 2014
    A New Mexico woman, two New Mexico landowners, and a New Mexico trade association today urged a New Mexico federal district court to grant them summary judgment against Mora County and its officials for violating their constitutional rights in adopting an ordinance that bar future energy development.
  • New Mexicans Challenge County’s Ban on Energy

    Nov 11, 2013
    A New Mexico woman, two New Mexico landowners, and a New Mexico trade association today sued Mora County and its officials for violating their constitutional rights in adopting an ordinance that bar future energy development.


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